Christmas 1214: King John at Worcester

As we move into Advent, many of us turn our minds to planning for the forthcoming Christmas festivities. There’s much to do; food to order and prepare, the house to tidy and decorate, family and friends to consider, not least the thorny question of just what to wear! It was ever thus.

In 1214 (800 years ago, to the year) King John’s mind was similarly engaged, although he could be forgiven for being less than imbued with the Christmas spirit. 1214 marked the year when the King’s French aspirations came to an abrupt end. In October of that year he returned to England in despondent mood. He had been pursuing a disastrous continental campaign, his mind set primarily on recovering Normandy for the English crown. As he prepared to engage the French King he was deserted by his allies, the Poitevin barons, who refused to fight in a pitched battle and promptly withdrew for home. In his fury King John wrote a letter to England, couched in expressions of confidence, but clearly revealing his plight. The letter makes a plea for additional men to join his cause, assuring those that had previously incurred his “ill will” that they would regain his favour by coming to their King’s aid. The letter was in vain. On 27th July 1214 the English forces engaged King Philip of France at the village of Bouvines. The battle was described as a crude affair, taking the form of a series of confused mêlées, a type of warfare to which the French chivalry was accustomed. In a little over three hours the French prevailed. John, who had remained at La Rochelle, was despondent.

King John effigy in Worcester Cathedral Magna Carta

King John – detail from his funerary effigy in Worcester Cathedral. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

When he returned to England in October 1214 discontent was near boiling point, exacerbated by the strong-arm rule of Peter des Roches as justiciar (regent) during John’s absence. The King had also demanded the payment of scutage (a tax paid in lieu of military service) by those who had not joined his French campaign. The demand was met by a widespread refusal to pay, with a group of northern barons claiming that their conditions of tenure did not bind them to serve outside the kingdom, or indeed to pay scutage. Although at this time John was not a ruined man at his barons’ mercy, his authority was considerably weaker than a victorious King’s would have been.

As the New Year dawned (the years in John’s reign ran Michaelmas to Michaelmas; at the time Old Michaelmas day was 29th September, an old English quarter-day) so John’s thoughts turned to preparations for his Christmas court. The King it seems possessed restless energy, and travelled incessantly, keeping Easter or Christmas at Worcester, or hunting at Feckenham and Kinver. This year he again resolved to hold his Christmas court at Worcester.

From the ancient Patent Rolls we know the King was at Worcester from Thursday 25th to Saturday 27th December, keeping his Christmas festival here before moving on to Hereford and Tewkesbury. Before leaving Worcester, however, he sent an order to the Praepositus or head man of Wilton to purchase 1,000 ells of linen or flaxen material for tablecloths (an ell was a former measure of length, equivalent to six hand breadths, used mainly for textiles. It was locally variable but typically about 45 inches, about 1.14 metres) and to send the same to Worcester without delay. Also the Sherriff of Gloucester was ordered to “send to us at Worcester by Christmas” 20 ells of russet cloth, which was in his own keeping, likewise a bay horse which was at Bristol in the custody of R. Marescall, and a black horse which Hugh de Boves had given to the King.

We can guess at the other provisions he prepared, as we have documentary evidence from the following year (1215) that he placed an order on the Exchequer to pay for provisions (oxen and hogs, silver cups and drinking vessels); and another order on the same purse to pay for flaxen and linen material for tablecloths (being 366 ells at 3½ pence per ell), all to be sent to Worcester for the feast of Christmas. The 1215 Christmas court was to be the King’s last in Worcester, for by this time his difficulties and troubles had severely constrained him.

King John Will British Library Magna Carta

John clearly felt an attachment to Worcester. The Cathedral Library holds the will made on death bead, stipulating his wish to be buried in the (then) priory. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Similar care would have been given to the King’s apparel. It was important, indeed of symbolic significance, for him to present himself in due majesty for the Christmas celebrations. We get an accurate indication of the type of dress he would have worn by an account in the Patent Roll for 1207, where we see a receipt for a set of ornaments delivered to the King at Clarendon, also just before Christmas Day. This list begins with a great crown from Germany; a tunic of purple; sandals of the same cloth and a belt of orfrey (highly elaborate embroidery work, often in the form of an ornamental border, or embroidered band, especially as used on ecclesiastical vestments) worked with stones; a pair of buskins (a calf-high or knee-length boot of cloth or leather) and frets of the same stuff; a pair of gloves; a dalmatic (a wide-sleeved long, loose vestment open at the sides, worn by deacons and bishops, and by monarchs at their coronation) of black purple, and the mantle (or pallium regale) of purple with a clasp and brooch of gold; also the King’s great sceptre and the golden rod with the dove, two swords and his golden spurs.

It is conjecture, but nonetheless wonderful to think that these may have been the clothing and embellishments he wore (or certainly something similar in spirit) when he visited Worcester at Christmas 1214.

King John Shroud Detail British Library Magna Carta

Details from John’s burial shroud, showing intricate embroidery with gold thread. Removed from the tomb in 1797, the fragment is now held in Worcester Cathedral Library. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

But all did not bode well for the King. Under the protective hustle and bustle of the feast of St. Edmund his barons met on 20th November 1214 in the crowds at St. Edmundsbury, where they determined to present their demands to the King at his Christmas court. They then parted to meet again at the feast of the Nativity. When the festival arrived King John found himself almost alone at Worcester. None of his great vassals came as usual to congratulate him, and it was reported that the countenances of his own attendants seemed gloomy and unquiet. John, it seems, read the omens well, and after Christmas departed Worcester suddenly, eventually riding to London where he shut himself in the strong-house of the Knights Templar. The barons pursued him, and on the feast of Epiphany (6th January 1215) they presented themselves in such force that the King was obliged to admit them. John procrastinated further, and promised them a definite answer to their demands by Easter.

After Easter, the Barons convened again, this time at Brackley. The King sent the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Earl of Pembroke to acquire a copy of their demands. The Barons gave these ministers a schedule of the old Laws and Usages of the Kingdom, and made threats of force should the King refuse to acknowledge them. John, when the draught of demands was read, rejected the petition with indignation, and swore “he never would be so lavish in his Grants of Liberty, as to make himself a Slave”.

As we know 1215 was to become the year the barons pressed John for reforms, and eventually achieved his acquiescence leading to the acceptance of Magna Carta.

But as our own Christmas festival in 2014 draws close, it is with a degree of fascination and wonder that we think on King John, who lays in his great tomb in Worcester Cathedral, surmounted by the oldest royal effigy in England, a masterpiece of early thirteenth-century sculpture. Within the tomb he rests to this day, regaled in ornaments which, according to the reports from 1797 when the tomb was opened, resemble that set described in the 1207 list, and most likely those worn at Christmas in Worcester in 1214. The effigy itself is represented in an altogether richer set, and shown with a drawn sword. John, the only English king commemorated with a drawn sword at his side, remains proudly defiant to the last.

King John effigy Worcester British Library Magna Carta

John’s effigy at Worcester, with sword drawn. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Steve Hobbs

Bibliography

1. Worcestershire Nuggets, by an old digger. Noake, John. Deighton & Co., Worcester 1889.

2. A History of Worcester, Volume II. The Victoria History of the Counties of England. Edited by J. W. Willis-Bund and William Page. James Street, London, 1906.

3. An Account of the Discovery of the Body of King John in the Church of Worcester July 17th, 1797. Valentine Green. London and Worcester, 1797.

4. Correspondence and Notes concerning the gilding of the Effigy of King John in Worcester Cathedral. By Canon Wilson. 1913. MSS Worcester Cathedral Library.

5. The Milfield MS – Grey Family of Northumberland.

6. The History and Antiquities of the City and Suburbs of Worcester by Valentine Green. London, 1796.

7. Patent Rolls timeline at http://neolography.com/timelines/JohnItinerary.html

8. An Ecclesiastical History of Great Britain, by Jeremy Collier. London, 1708.

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